In the nine days since the October 1 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Red Alert Politics’ research found more than 30 shooting and bomb threats have been made to all levels of educational institutions.
But, a lack of data makes it difficult if not impossible to know whether it’s an aberration from the norm. Many school shooting threats and bomb threats close or lock down schools and colleges across the United States, but no government organization tracks them.
A few of the recent threats were verified as hoaxes, several applied to a general geographic area, and none led to any injuries, though school shootings have occurred since Umpqua Community College, such as the October 8 shooting at Northern Arizona University that killed one student and injured three more in a confrontation. Most incidents get reported by local broadcast stations and newspapers, but don’t make national headlines.
A partial study of bomb threats in 2013 analyzed 100 incidents that targeted colleges and universities.
A 2011 report on bomb threats in schools, excluding postsecondary institutions, from The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, part of the Department of Justice, stated that “[d]ata on bomb incidents … and bomb threats … are limited.” Between 1990 and 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recorded 1,055 school incidents that involved a bomb.
Only 14 of them included a warning.
From the limited data, it does not appear that a small group of students make all the bomb threats in one area. Copycats follow the original threat like a social epidemic.
A 2010 FBI report that analyzed targeted violence affecting higher-education institutions have found violent, directed assaults increasing on college campuses since the 1940s. The report notes that higher-education institutions “essentially function as mini-societies;” with the large numbers of students, violence increases as a matter of course. Data is much more reliable since the 1990s because of better archiving ability and federal law that required universities to collect data on crime.
Determining the number of shooting threats and bomb threats, then, is difficult. Bomb threats appear to be more common than shooting threats, but again, a lack of data makes that difficult to confirm with a high level of confidence. The specific data isn’t kept, and if it were, historical comparisons are non-existent, so there isn’t a way to know whether those incidents have become more or less frequent. It’s likely that they have increased, at least among institutions of higher education, but all examples should be taken as anecdotal.
The 30-some incidents in October present a threat to public safety as well as public finances. Almost every incident gets treated as credible until further notice, requiring closures, delays, and resource expenditures for public safety. Without further data, crafting best-response practices to shooting and bomb threats will be piecemeal and possibly ineffective.